Department of English UG Module Directory (2020)

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Guillotines, Ghosts and Laughing Gas: Literature in the 1790s

Level 6 (15 credits)

The 1790s was a turbulent decade in which literature, politics and science interacted in unprecedented ways. Innovations in poetry coincided with a cult of Gothic horror, dramatic discoveries in science and an explosive pamphlet war unleashed by the French Revolution. This module explores the distinctive culture of the revolutionary decade, studying poems, novels and plays by Coleridge, Blake, Charlotte Smith, 'Monk' Lewis, Sheridan and other writers alongside Jacobin and anti-Jacobin polemics, political cartoons and experiments with `laughing gas' in the laboratories of the poet-chemist Humphry Davy.

Preparing for this Module and Approximate Costs

Welcome to Guillotines, Ghosts and Laughing Gas: Literature in the 1790s. Most of the set texts for this module will be contained in the Module Pack, available free of charge towards the start of term. The Office will tell you how to obtain this. 

In addition, you will need to purchase:

·       M. G. Lewis, The Monk, ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scarf (Broadview). Please buy this edition as we will be using material in the appendices. Available from Amazon or the campus bookstore for c. £11.

·       William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Dover or other illustrated edition) c. £7

Lewis’s scandalous Gothic novel is the longest and scariest text on the module and you should aim to read it in advance, preferably by candlelight.

The early weeks of the module will be devoted to texts inspired by the French Revolution, including eye-witness accounts by Mary Wollstonecraft and Helen Maria Williams, political pamphlets by Burke and Paine, Coleridge and Southey’s play The Fall of Robespierre and Charlotte Smith’s poem The Emigrants. A useful critical guide is The Cambridge Companion to British Literature of the French Revolution in the 1790s, ed. Pamela Clemit (CUP). More generally, try to find out all you can about the French Revolution and its aftermath.

For scientific writing, the third strand of the module, an excellent introduction is Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (HarperPress). This is not a set text but parts of it (especially the chapter on Humphry Davy) are directly relevant and the book is very readable. Davy was a poet as well as a brilliant chemist, and we will be studying some of his poetry alongside accounts of his famous ‘laughing gas’ experiments.

Another good book about the 1790s, aimed at general readers, is Rachel Hewitt’s A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind (Granta). That many-sided revolution – in politics, literature, science, and, more generally, in the way people thought and felt – is the subject of the module. 

Estimated costs of primary texts £18. This can normally be reduced by buying the texts second-hand.


Learning Context Long Seminar
Semester 1

1. Seminar Presentation (10 min), 20%
2. Final Essay (3000 words), 80%

Mode of reassessment Standard
Contact David Duff